Ethnic Groups of Montana

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This entry was originally written by Dwight A. Radford for Red Book: American State, County, and Town Sources.

This article is part of
the Montana Family History Research series.
History of Montana
Montana Vital Records
Census Records for Montana
Background Sources for Montana
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Montana Land Records
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Montana Periodicals, Newspapers, and Manuscript Collections
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Ethnic Groups of Montana
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Map of Montana


Native American

Some Native American Agency records are microfilmed and can be examined through the National Archives—Pacific Alaska Region; FHL in Salt Lake City; and the University of Montana in Missoula, Montana. These agency records are very important and should not be overlooked when conducting Native American research.

Billings Area Office, Billings, Montana (1912–52). These records document the activities of the federal government as trustee of tribal lands and resources. Record sources include general decimal files, grazing leases, and records concerning education, health, tribal enactments, irrigation, land transactions, forestry, soil conservation, agricultural extension, and road construction.

Blackfeet Agency, Browning, Montana (1875–1959). Records include general correspondence, grazing permits, oil and gas production reports, census records, birth and health records, ledgers, abstracts of accounts of individual Indians, tribal council records, records concerning education, road, forestry, irrigation, credit, welfare, and rehabilitation programs. This agency was established in 1855 for the three bands of the Siksika Native Americans.

Crow Agency, Crow Agency, Montana (1874–1959). This agency was established in 1869 and administered the affairs of the Mountain and River Crows. The River Crows were originally under the control of the Fort Peck Agency, but they gradually came under the control of the Crow Agency. Record sources include general correspondence and decimal files, student case files, school censuses, tract books, maps of the Crow reservations, grazing leases, building plans, annuity payrolls, ledgers for accounts of individual Indians, records of goods issued to Indians, census rolls, Indian court dockets, records concerning irrigation, forestry, Civilian Conservation Corps, and road programs.

Flathead Agency, St. Ignatius, Montana (1875–1960). Records include general correspondence and decimal files; correspondence; reports and censuses concerning schools; grazing permits; leases; records concerning allotments and land transactions, and other records concerning land, irrigation, Civilian Conservation Corps, engineering, and road and forestry programs; ledgers for accounts of individual Indians; census reports; records concerning relief, welfare projects and cases; Indian police and court records; credit program files; tribal accounts; and annuity payrolls. This agency was established in 1854 principally for the Flathead, Upper Pend d’Oreille, and Kutenai tribes. Lower Kalispells moved onto the Flathead Reservation in 1887, and the Spokane moved to the reservation in 1894. In time, the distinctions became ignored and all were known as Flatheads.

Fort Belknap Agency, Harlem, Montana (1877–1969). Records include general correspondence and decimal files, correspondence concerning education, school reports and applications, grazing permits, leases, ledgers for accounts of individual Indians, correspondence and reports about health and welfare, census rolls, family history cards, traders’ licenses, police and court records concerning roads, land sales, Civilian Conservation Corps work, and financial matters. This agency was established in 1873 and had jurisdiction over the Gros Ventre and Upper Assiniboine along the Milk River.

Fort Peck Agency, Popular, Montana (1871–1959), formally known as the Milk River Agency. Agency records include general correspondence and decimal files, school reports, records of 4-H activities, grazing permits, mining leases, ledgers for accounts of individual Indians, credit rehabilitation ledgers, industrial status reports, census records, medical reports, registers of Indians, birth and death records, welfare relief case files, tribal council records, and records concerning land allotments and sales, forestry and range management, irrigation, and road construction. This agency had jurisdiction over the Lower Assiniboine and Sioux, principally Yanktonai, Native Americans.

“Indian Schools” were set up to further the education of the Native American youth. Two important schools whose records should not be overlooked are the Chemawa Indian School in Chemawa, Oregon, and the Fort Shaw School in Cascade County, Montana. These schools attracted students from many states. (For a more detailed account of the Chemawa Indian School, see Ethnic Groups of Oregon.) The Fort Shaw School was established in Fort Shaw in 1892 as a non-reservation school and closed in 1910. Its records consist of letters received, registers of pupils, rosters of employees, and cashbooks. A major Native American Collection is the James McLaughlin Papers. Major James McLaughlin was an Indian agent for some time in the Dakotas, Montana, and Wyoming Territory. He kept careful records of his dealings with many tribes. His papers include Native American family data and locations of specific families. Many families had become scattered during their subsequent relocation to reservations. The James McLaughlin Papers, therefore, are an excellent source for locating many of these scattered families. This collection consists of 30,000 pages with an index containing 15,675 cross-reference cards.

A guide to the James McLaughlin Papers is published and entitled Guide to the Microfilm Edition of the Major James McLaughlin Papers by Rev. Louis Pfaller (Richardson, N.Dak.: Assumption College, 1969).

A very important Native American collection for Montana, as well as Idaho, Oregon, and Washington, is the Pacific Northwest Tribes Missions Collection of the Oregon Province Archives of the Society of Jesus (1853–1960). This massive collection of Jesuit records includes births, marriages, deaths, censuses, land records, church records, histories, and newspaper clippings. The following tribes are recorded in these records: Blackfoot, Cheyenne, Coeur d’Alene, Colville, Crow, Flathead, Kalispell, Kootenai, Nez Perce, Spokane, and Umatilla.

These records are on microfilm with a copy at the FHL and the originals at the Crosby Library, Gonzaga University, Spokane, Washington, which is where the Oregon Province Archives is now located. For a guide to the microfilm collection, see Robert C. Carriker and Eleanor R. Carriker, Guide to the Microfilm Edition of the Pacific Northwest Tribes Missions Collection of the Oregon Province Archives of the Society of Jesus (Wilmington, Del.: Scholarly Resources, 1987).

Other Ethnic Groups

The discovery of gold in Montana brought many Chinese into the region during the early 1860s. These Chinese were from the province of Kwangtung around the Canton area. The 1870 U.S. census of Montana Territory counted 1,943 Chinese, representing about ten percent of the total population. By 1880 the number had declined to 1,765, but by 1890 had risen to 2,532. By the 1870s there were a number of Chinese mining operations in western Montana. As placer mining declined during the late 1870s and 1880s, the Chinese moved into other fields such as railroad construction and business, which served not only the Chinese population but the white majority as well. Montana’s largest communities of Chinese were in Butte and Helena. The most important institution in the Chinese community was the Joss House, or Temple, which served the religious (Confucianism) as well as the social needs of the community. Butte’s Chinatown had two Joss Houses. Another important institution was the Masonic temple.

The Chinese contributed much to the development of Montana, especially in the building of the Northern Pacific Railroad, which opened the state up to further development. However, little remains of Montana’s Chinese era. The failure of the community was due to racism, discriminatory laws, and immigration laws, as well as the shortage of Chinese female emigrants in western America. For an excellent treatment of Montana’s Chinese, see “Kwangtung to Big Sky: The Chinese in Montana, 1864–1900,” Montana: The Magazine of Western History 1 (Winter 1988): 38. The best method of researching the Chinese in Montana is county sources such as land, tax and court records, and federal census enumerations.

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